Migrant workers

Two-year struggle pays off for sub-contracted hotel workers in Paris

The striking chambermaids in front of the Ibis Batignolles hôtel, 17 October 2019
The striking chambermaids in front of the Ibis Batignolles hôtel, 17 October 2019 AFP - STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

More than 20 chambermaids at an Ibis hotel in Paris have obtained better pay and working conditions after a 22-month battle with their employers, including eight months of strike action.

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“So, so, solidarité” the triumphant women chanted on Tuesday outside the 700-room Hôtel Ibis Batignolles, owned by the multinational hotel group Accor. They’d just signed an agreement with Accor and the cleaning and catering agency STN to whom it outsources its workers.

After 22 months of turbulent struggle, there was a huge feeling of relief and pride.

“Words fail me,” Rachel Keke, one of the leaders, told RFI. “We’re proud of what we’ve achieved because we fought through to the end, we never gave up. I kept saying to my colleagues we have to hang on, we’ll win in the end. And now we have this wonderful victory.”

Historic progress

“Above all they got their dignity back,” Claude Lévy, a rep with the Prestige and Budget hotels section of the CGT trade union, told RFI. “These women from sub-Saharan Africa have shown unbelievable courage, they’re lionesses.”

The women did not manage to get hired by the Accor group and remain sub-contracted workers, but all their other demands were met.

These include a salary increase of between €250 and €500 per month, a 20 percent reduction in the rate of their work, a pause during the day, a guarantee to work at least five hours a day rather than the previous four and a time clock to ensure that those working hours are respected.

Several of the group will also receive compensation. In return they agreed to end their industrial action.

Lévy described the agreement as “historic” adding that Accor had a “reputation for being very tough in negotiations”.

17 minutes per room

The women launched their strike action on 17 July 2019 after 10 staff with occupational diseases were threatened with transfer to another establishment because they were unable to clean the number of rooms required.

“What also set the powder keg on fire is the payment-per-room system, so common in sub-contracted work,” Lévy explained. “They had to clean 3.5 rooms per hour, that’s one every 17 minutes. And the hours over and above that rate were not paid.  All of that resulted in undeclared work. It’s an explosive cocktail.”

Levy’s union raised €284,000 in a solidarity fund to keep the women afloat during their eight-month strike action before the health crisis forced hotels to close and the government’s furlough scheme kicked in.

France’s biggest hotel group

Accor is the largest hotel group in France and Europe, and the sixth biggest in the world. While the deal was struck with both STN and Accor, Lévy maintains the payer called the shots.

The prospect of  hotels reopening with lighter health protocols “drove the Accor Groupe to increase its commercial contract by around 30 percent – the equivalent of €500,000 per year”, Lévy said.

Another driver was the sheer length of the conflict which had “seriously dented” the group’s prestigious image.

An example for rest of the industry

Under the agreement, the women have been upgraded from simple cleaners to skilled workers, a move Lévy hopes to see across the hotel industry.

“The Accor Groupe has realised it’s no longer possible to continue with these unbelievable situations in hotel sub-contracting. These physically difficult jobs have to be upgraded because lots of young people are leaving the sector, turning their backs on this kind of work because of poor working conditions and low pay," Lévy said.

“This is an example for everyone watching us," housekeeper Rachel Keke said. "Fighting back pays off. We have to end this form of slavery, stop sub-contracting in hotels, restaurants, building sites, everywhere.”

The women intend to carry on pushing to get hired in-house, and are counting on the two staff representatives they will now be allowed to elect on 15 June to argue their case.

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